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US Vows to Speed Up Visa Processing for Afghans who Helped Americans

In this Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, photo, Zia Ghafoori displays the Purple Heart at his home in Charlotte, N.C., that he received while working with U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.

The United States on Wednesday reaffirmed ongoing support to relocate tens of thousands of Afghans who helped American forces during the nearly two-decade war in Afghanistan.

“We've identified a group of SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) applicants who served as interpreters and translators, as well as other individuals who have assisted us and that are at risk. They and their families would have the options to be relocated outside of Afghanistan before we complete our military drawdown by September, in order to complete their Special Immigrant Visa processing,” State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter told VOA during a Wednesday phone briefing.

The deputy spokesperson declined to elaborate which third country would provide temporary relocation for Afghan SIV applicants. “Due to security constraints, we will be limited in how much we can share in terms of numbers, locations and timing of these operations,” Porter said.

The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program was created by the U.S. Congress in 2009 to provide safety for Afghan interpreters, contractors, security personnel and others affiliated with U.S. troops and missions.

At the White House, spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. is “expediting that processing” and taking steps to evaluate options “for moving individuals to another location so that they could complete” the visa process.

Former Afghan interpreters hold placards during a demonstrations against the US government, in front of the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, June 25, 2021.
Former Afghan interpreters hold placards during a demonstrations against the US government, in front of the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, June 25, 2021.

There are approximately 18,000 Afghan SIV applicants waiting for approval to come to the U.S.

U.S. officials’ comments came after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a proposal Tuesday that would temporarily waive the requirement for SIV applicants to undergo a medical examination while in Afghanistan. They would be allowed to do so after entering U.S. soil.

The medical examination requirement has been cited as one of the reasons for serious delay in the visa process because there is currently only one facility in Kabul that conducts all immigrant visa examinations, forcing applicants to travel to Kabul in often dangerous circumstances.

The House legislation will now go to the Senate.

The SIV process involves more than a dozen steps and a role for the Departments of State and Homeland Security.

There are approximately 18,000 Afghan principal applicants at some stage of the SIV application process. As of May, approximately 50% of these applicants are at an initial stage of the process, pending applicant action, according to a State Department spokesperson.

In other words, approximately 9,000 of these applicants need to take action before the U.S. government can begin processing their case. Approximately 30% of applications are awaiting a decision at the Chief of Mission stage. The final 20% were approved by the Chief of Mission and are moving through the immigration process, either in the petition or visa processing stages.

Some critics said the SIV program has been “plagued by backlogs for more than a decade.”

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that has resettled more than 15,000 Afghan SIV recipients since the U.S. Congress established the program, said it would take an Afghan applicant two to three years or more to reach safety in the U.S.

IRC said in a statement that the U.S. government needs to develop an efficient adjudication process "that addresses the longstanding challenges in SIV processing that have resulted in years-long backlogs."

In April, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks on the U.S., despite the growing threat by Taliban rebels to seize power.

Since May, Taliban rebels have escalated attacks and seized dozens of districts in the Afghan countryside, sparking concerns the insurgents could gain control of Kabul as it did in 1996.